I am at southside mall just before the big day in December of 2001, my rust-spotted RAV-4 parked in front of Goodwill, when my favorite holiday music starts up over the loudspeaker. "Greensleeves" always brings to mind the first time I heard it. Bagpipes and drums had awakened me in my hotel on my very first trip to London. When I looked out the window, below me marched a small parade of men wearing kilts, and I later learned the tune they played was a somber "Greensleeves."
Today it reminds me that, besides new Christmas tree lights, I could use luggage for my upcoming sixth trip to London, this time with the College of Notre Dame of Maryland. A Travelpro wheelie is my choice, and the likelihood of finding it in Goodwill is extremely remote, but the music lures me into the store. A plethora of tiny white bulbs awaits me, so that in less than five minutes I am heading for the jumbled pile of suitcases kept in the back of the store.
As I approach travel gear of all sizes and shapes, the latest Harpers Bazaar protruding from the magazine pocket of a roll-aboard catches my eye. I bend down to inspect the suitcase, and to my amazement there is the Eiffel Tower logo, assuring my disbelieving eyes that this is indeed a Travelpro, and it is outwardly pristine. The handle pulls out easily, the zippers work. There is a strap for hooking on my carry-on bag. Inside one of the smaller pockets my fingers touch objects left behind.
I hesitate no longer.
As I stand in line at the checkout counter, I notice the leather name tag is much longer than an ordinary one, and the name on it suggests to me someone who sells cosmetics. I can't find a price tag, but no one asks prices at Goodwill. When the clerk says, "Ten dollars," I gulp. I was expected a low price, but the $4 latest Harpers is fully visible. When she says, "Oh, but it's Wednesday," I cringe. She's charging me senior day price and the price is now $8. "Plus tax," she adds.
On the short drive to my home at the Harbor, my radio playing "Rudolph," I decide once inside I'll have a celebratory glass of Chablis, to toast my unknown donor for my bonanza, not only a monstrous bargain but a savings in precious time I would not have to spend shopping for luggage.
When the wine is poured, I muse upon the somewhat grubby interior of the bag. The former owner is either an over-scheduler or just messy, I decide as I remove traces of cardinal-red lipstick. My groping fingers grasp a stylized silver crucifix! It is 4 inches in length on a lovely silver chain. The design of the crucifix denotes more than her faith. She is modish, arty.
Next there is a tiny lock for the suitcase, still in its fresh cardboard container. A vision of PBS's Hercule Poirot stroking his curling-upward-at-ends mustache is before me. "Ah, tres unique, la clef not used." My benefactor is a risk-taker, I conclude. Next, I ferret out a single, 2-inch enamel-on-copper earring on which a creamy angel's gold-tinged wings soar across an azure sky. The earring is well-crafted. Elegant. The last item unearthed is a St. Christopher's medal.
So she forgoes using luggage keys, chooses artful pieces, and possesses a touch of whimsy, besides being so generous to the recipient of the bag she no longer needs. I conjure up a tall, youngish traveler, not thoroughly well-groomed, her mind more on getting out of the office as quickly as possible on a Friday, dashing off to Pennsylvania Station where she boards a train to Manhattan, reads Harpers, quaffing a Starbucks cappuccino, all the time thinking about the boyfriend she will meet under the clock in the lobby of the Waldorf.
My mind takes a further leap to thoughts of a tall man in a tux, long departed from this world, whom I could meet there. As I sponge the last of the folded clothes section, my fingers come across a crinkly cellophane wrapper, together with shards of petrified nuts, in a corner. I have been so engrossed in my search for clues to Miss May's personality — the name I discover on the magazine label — I haven't touched the Chablis.
This woman lives not far from the Light Street library, where I am a member of the Friends of the Library. I may get to meet her there. I may learn why she decided to leave a disparate group of items for someone to use. Perhaps to the new owner she sends the St. Christopher's medal as a symbolic good luck wish. My thoughtful mother never gave away a handbag without first inserting a quarter.
I decide to write to her, telling her how much I like the bag (omitting the need to clean it up) and offer to return the items, emphasizing the crucifix, which she must have overlooked. I include my email address.
During Christmas dinner, I tell my family my Goodwill luggage story. Then, as my son drives me to the airport, he asks whether I have heard from the person who left all those things in the suitcase. I couldn't hide my disappointment. "No doubt she was too busy to get in touch during the holidays. Maybe when I return?"
All during my stay in England, the luggage is a joy. Sister Margaret is the only traveler with a smaller bag, and she and I exchange expressions of mock complacency on being complimented on our sensible, perfect-size luggage. After our group farewell dinner, I pack my efficient Travelpro. I think again of Miss May as I pull the zipper that surrounds the expandable portion which holds books purchased at Hay-on-Wye.
Back home, one of the first things I do is check my email. I see a message from an address that I do not recognize. Delete it? The subject says simply, "Luggage." I read all the other messages, and then decide to risk opening the one from an unknown writer. I read:
"The post office sent us the letter you wrote to our daughter Renee, who was killed aboard Flight 77 when it crashed into the Pentagon …."
Though blinded by tears, I was not crying; the sounds I was making were those of an animal. I wailed for hours. The life of the young woman whose luggage I had been bequeathed had been senselessly snuffed out with all the others. If she had not hoped to travel, why would she have become a flight attendant? Guiltily, I thought of all she would miss.
Pictures from my past appeared. The war with Korea had cut short my stay those many years ago in London. I married the student who awaited my return. Eventually, I landed a position as one of 10 official verbatim reporters in the House of Representatives. Renee would not collect sunsets as I had — seeing Manila Bay from General MacArthur's World War II headquarters; a sunset that surrounded us as congressmen and staff flew over Tokyo in a helicopter; the breathtaking sunset along the crescent-shaped beach of Ipanema in Rio de Janeiro.
"... It was very touching to us that you would seek her out to tell her about the crucifix, medal and lock that were in the luggage you purchased. We donated a lot of her things to her church and Goodwill. I am glad to know that such a caring person has something that belonged to our daughter. We would like you to keep it if you want. (If it doesn't affect your religious beliefs.) She didn't have them with her on the terrible day. Maybe they will bring you peace when you travel. If you do not wish to have them, please send them to us and we will gladly pay any postage due. Thank you. Nancy May."
I knew I would not sleep that night. After much thought, my decision was to return all the items, stressing that I was not in the least offended by the religious items but felt they belonged with her parents.
I found an article about Renee in the Sunpapers in which she was eulogized by her neighbors. In the 10 years that have passed, I have found friends who were fellow docents with Renee at the Walters Art Museum; I have attended the lectures the Walters gives yearly in her memory. Each time I happen upon her piece of luggage, I mourn her loss. I wish I had not discarded the Harpers magazine, Fervently, I wish that I had held onto the name tag which was so puzzling, and about which this amateur sleuth was so clueless.